Posted by: Calum Miller | February 23, 2014

Christianity and abortion

After my recent post making a brief case for the pro-life position, it occurred to me that, in addition to the secular case I made there, Christians have extra reason to hold to the pro-life position. Here, I hope to give another unsatisfactorily brief overview of some extra motivations for Christians to promote the life of the unborn.

I express my indebtedness to David Albert Jones’ “The Soul of the Embryo” for much of what follows. Jones’ work is an exceptionally thorough and insightful work on the history of Christian attitudes towards abortion, complete with insight into the various contexts in which Christians have spoken. I would recommend to the book to any Christian seeking to learn more about the topic.

Christianity, personhood and the image of God

According to Christian tradition (and ultimately, according to the Bible), human beings are made in the image of God. What, exactly, this means is hard to say, but it means we should be wary of any account which tries to derive humans’ moral worth from “personhood”, or from the criteria which people often claim constitute personhood. In the Bible, it is wrong for humans to rob each other of their lives and thereby their dignity, even when modern “personhood” criteria are not present. The Bible does not say that humans have dignity only insofar as they are conscious, mentally rich, physically capable or economically independent. This would exclude the disabled, the foolish, the sick, the young and the poor. But these are precisely the kinds of people the Bible commands us to especially look out for, and this concern for all human life, even those at the very bottom of society, is one of the things that makes Christian teaching so unique and profound. There are countless passages in the Bible where Christians are commanded to take special care of “the least of these”, and this includes all the people who are excluded by many contemporary “personhood” analyses.

Where does human worth come from? One of the foremost claims in the Bible about humans is that they are made in the image of God. John Wyatt helpfully elaborates on some of what this means. It means that we are dependent on him, and that our value comes from him. It means that we are fundamentally relational, and that there are no such things as isolated, autonomous individuals. It means that we are valuable and treasured not because of what we do, but because of what we are. Finally, it means that human beings are all equal in the eyes of God.

What does this imply for the abortion debate? It means that there are real problems with any view that tries to ground human dignity, worth and rights in anything like merit or ability, mental capacity or independence. For Christianity, humans are not treasured because of their achievements or abilities, but because they are created in the image of God – and this is just as true of those who are mentally ill or physically incapable. Nor are humans treasured because they are independent – they depend fully on God, and even Jesus became incarnate to depend on fellow humans. The kinds of people excluded by typical personhood criteria like these are exactly the kinds of people God commands particular care for: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

So we cannot get away with saying that human beings are not valuable until they meet some other criteria: all humans are equal in God’s eyes, and they do not rely on their abilities or independence for their worth. Christians are called to care for the vulnerable, and to look out for the last, the least and the lost. And they are called to recognise the worth, dignity and rights of all human beings just as God does.

Christian tradition and the unborn

All of this provides good reason to think that the unborn, being human beings, are just as entitled to life as the rest of us (perhaps even more so, given their plausible innocence). The Bible says nothing about less developed human beings being less valuable – indeed, children are given a very special role throughout the Bible, and especially by Jesus himself.

But before turning to some of the more explicit Biblical teaching on the unborn, I’d like to briefly explore historical Christian teaching on the subject. Until the mid-20th century, the Church has been unanimous in affirming that the unborn have been part of the human family. There has been some disagreement regarding when, exactly, the unborn became ‘ensouled’, but even the view that the unborn were not ensouled at conception took centuries to develop in contradiction to the earliest Church teaching, and even then the unborn child was held to be ensouled at a relatively early stage.

So what have Christians said throughout the centuries? One important contextual factor to recognise is the culture Christianity grew up in. In my first post, one of my arguments depended on the lack of a morally significant difference between the unborn and newborns. This point is conceded by the foremost pro-abortion ethicists (e.g. Singer, Tooley), and interestingly, it seemed to be held to some extent by pagans during the early periods of Christianity. Sex-selective infanticide was common in the Greco-Roman world, and the rights of a father included the right to kill his newborn son or daughter (the terminology of ‘discarding’ newborn girls, similar to today’s terminology of ‘terminating’ pregnancies, should be noted). Cicero claimed that the basis of Roman law included the judgment that “deformed infants shall be killed.” Seneca claimed that it was customary to drown newborns who were weakly and abnormal. Aristotle and Plato recommended the killing of disabled infants. And so on.

In opposition to this, the early Church was firmly against abortion and infanticide. Their opposition to abortion cannot, therefore, be put down to contextual factors: that they were influenced by the cultures around them, for example. Rather, this came straight out of their faith. The Didache, a work written as early as some of the New Testament writings, states, “You shall not kill a child by abortion nor kill it after it is born.” The Letter of Barnabas, written shortly after, makes the same statement. Athenagoras, writing in the 2nd century, claimed that “those women who use drugs to bring about an abortion commit murder.” Similarly, Tertullian wrote that “for us murder is once for all forbidden; so it is not lawful for us to destroy even the child in the womb”. John Chrysostom wrote that abortion was even worse than murder, because it turned the womb into “a chamber for murder”. More examples of early Christian writers expressing the same sentiments can easily be adduced, and include Minucius Felix, Lactantius, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Jerome, Cyprian and Hippolytus.

These writings cannot be dismissed as the extremist meanderings of morally dubious characters. These people were coming out of the earliest tradition in the Church founded by Jesus himself, and it was precisely these beliefs about human value and equality which led them to oppose the widespread infanticide in their culture. Probably, too, it was the influence of these Christians which led to infanticide eventually being outlawed in the Roman Empire.

It is, of course, worth also mentioning the view of the Church Fathers on the stage at which they thought a new human being was formed. After all, it is possible that they were only against abortion after a particular point in pregnancy. As it happens, the earliest Church traditions said that ensoulment took place at conception. Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa and Tertullian all held to this view. Tertullian defended it on the basis that the soul is generated by the parents, and the most natural conclusion is that conception is therefore the beginning of a new soul. This fits neatly with our belief that our parents really did create us and that we really were conceived. It also fits neatly with a Biblical understanding of procreation. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the suggestion that ensoulment didn’t occur until slightly later was even raised, and even then, abortion was still held to be a serious sin before ensoulment.

This opposition to abortion and infanticide has been characteristic of Christians until the mid-20th century, in all strands of Christian tradition. It was the basis for the outlawing of infanticide, and the basis for the particularly Christian ministry of looking after orphans and the abandoned – when Christians first began this work, there were even stories of pagans abandoning their babies on the doorsteps of Christians, because they knew they would be looked after. If we are going to break with this tradition, there better be exceptional reason to do so.

The Bible and the unborn

More importantly, of course, is what the Bible teaches about the unborn. And here, too, there is good reason to think that the Bible recognises the value of the unborn. I have already discussed the Biblical view towards humans a whole, and in particular towards the equality of human beings. If the unborn are members of the family, it follows that the Biblical position is that abortion is as serious an issue as murder, as the earliest Christians taught.

There is good Biblical reason to view the unborn as being part of the human family. Psalm 139 speaks of God seeing the Psalmist’s “unformed substance”, and knitting him together in the womb. The Psalmist is “fearfully and wonderfully made” – an image at complete odds with the parasitic blob of cells the embryo is often described as. Ecclesiastes 11:5 speaks of breath coming to the bones in the womb, an image reminiscent of the breath of life given in Genesis. Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of being called and named while in the womb, and there are many other examples of Biblical figures in the womb: Job, Jacob, Esau, Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist, to name a few (the Maccabeean revolters, to name some more, for Catholics). Luke uses the same Greek word for the unborn John as for the newborn Jesus, and as for children appearing later in the gospel. Furthermore, many of these passages explicitly label conception as the starting point for human life.

Most obviously, Jesus himself was spoken about in the womb, after Mary conceived. Christians have never believed that Gabriel announced to Mary that she conceived a parasitic blob of cells with no worth until he was born. Gabriel announced that Mary had conceived Jesus the Messiah himself! And Jesus has always been held, throughout Christian history, to have been conceived, unsurprisingly, at conception. The Biblical evidence and Christian tradition for this is so strong that even those writers (e.g. Aquinas) who thought that ensoulment happened some time after conception thought that Jesus was an exception to this rule. But if Jesus took on our humanity and was made like us in every way, why should we be any different? This seems like a very compelling reason to think that humans begin to exist at conception, as a result of their parents’ procreative act.

Summary

In summary, there are overwhelming reasons for Christians to endorse the pro-life position. Christians are called to be champions of the weak and vulnerable, and to recognise the dignity and equality of all members of the human family. The most dangerous place for most human beings is in the womb, and this is even more true for women and ethnic minorities. Christians have an extra duty to carry on their tradition of caring for the particularly young and vulnerable. Moreover, in addition to the reasoning I gave in my first post, Christians have extra reason to think that human life begins at conception, and they have an overwhelming historical tradition of standing up for life in the womb.

Lord, help us to celebrate the life You give in all its forms
Help us to stand up for life and care for the vulnerable, born and unborn
Sorry for when our condemnation pressurises women into hiding their pregnancies
And help us to support and uplift those making these decision
Most importantly, help us to find healing in You
And to know that in You, there is no condemnation
In Jesus’ name, Amen

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